Empty, deteriorating, and facing an uncertain future, the Grand Theater, 2917 N. Holton St., reflects the highs and lows of Milwaukee’s movie theater history.
The 790-seat Grand was one of the city’s earliest movie houses, opening its doors in 1911 – just six years after Milwaukee’s first purpose-built theater. By 1930, the Grand was one of 89 theaters in town. By the mid-1950s, only a dozen remained and the Grand was one of them. It continued in operation into the 1970s.
For much of its history the Grand was a humble “nab” – movie jargon for “neighborhood” – theater. It was the place down the street where you went as a kid with 10 cents to spend and an abiding interest in the latest Western.
One regular attendee from those days said you got good value for your dime. Besides the feature presentation, moviegoers saw the current installment of an ongoing serial. These short, episodic films had cliffhanger endings to encourage regular attendance.
Andrew and Evelyn Gutenberg built the Grand when movies were silent. Larger theaters often had elaborate organs to provide accompaniment for the films. A neighborhood place like the Grand likely made do with a piano. Indeed, the skeleton of an ancient piano is still on the premises, tucked away beside the former screen.
The Gutenbergs lived two blocks north of their business at 2923 N. Holton St., where they raised two children. The movie business being mostly an evening and weekend operation, Andrew Gutenberg also operated a machine shop behind their home.
In 1943, while vacationing in Northern Wisconsin, Andrew Gutenberg died following an attack of appendicitis. He was 49. Evelyn took over as owner and manager of the theater.
Evelyn Gutenberg appeared in a 1958 advertisement for First Wisconsin Bank, where she said, “My husband built the Grand, here on Holton Street, the year we were married. Since then, it has always been in the family and pretty much what it is today … a modest, neighborhood movie house and a modestly successful business, just like so many others up and down the street.”
Although the Grand, a late-run discount house, kept going longer than most, times were changing. Around 1970, Matt Millen, a 30-year-old tax attorney turned film enthusiast, took over. He renamed it the Magik Grand Cine.
The theater showed a mix of foreign films and movie classics. It even hosted experimental live theater. One group, the DMZ Mime Troupe, staged a “Theaterencounter Mind Melt Group Grok” there.
In the mid-1970s, the movie house was purchased by the Church of the Philippians, which owned it until 2007 at which time it was sold to Haven of Hope Ministries. It retains most of its original decor, which can best be described as “American movie theater Mediterranean-ish.”
In spring 2015, the church moved on and the building was offered for sale. This piece of Milwaukee cinema history was listed for $65,000 – a pretty good price for a 7,500-square-foot historic building with a 21-foot-tall ceiling. But happy endings are more common in Hollywood than on Holton Street. The odds are against this building’s long-term survival.
For 60 years this was the neighborhood movie theater. That’s worth celebrating, whatever the future holds.
Special thanks to Dan Soiney and Sean Oster for the interior photos.